“As far as I can see the world is too old for us to talk about it with our new words – We will pass just as quietly through life (passing through, passing through) as the 10th century people of this valley only with a little more noise and a few bridges and dams and bombs that wont even last a million years – The world being just what it is, moving and passing through, actually alright in the long view and nothing to complain about.” (29)
The spiritual, vibrant core of Jack Kerouac’s signature voice, the voice of the beats, sings through with solemn wisdom in the passage above. This passage is taken from the earliest pages of his autobiographical novel, Big Sur, depicting a moment of tranquil sobriety and awareness with mankind’s momentary and inconsequential place within the greater history of the earth. Kerouac expresses this realization as he is sitting on the shores of the Big Sur coastline during a three-week lonesome retreat at the cabin of his friend, the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac found himself at this cabin on a personal retreat, seeking the escape from the moral and physical drains of binge-drinking and constant partying, the unexpected and unwanted attention of fame he gained the success of his most famous novel, On the Road, and the over-bearing distractions of city life. Big Sur may display many moments of such serene clarity and peace, but this is actually Kerouac’s most gritty novel, exploring moments of desperation, anxiety, and fugue-like madness stemming from his struggles with alcoholism.
It may be my age and my ability to identify with the voice of this novel, but I think Big Sur may be my favorite of the three Kerouac novels I have read throughout my life. On the Road is an important and beautiful book, but it is written from the voice of youthful freedom that celebrates the wandering spirit. With the passing of time and age On The Road loses the impact of its initial significance to an older reader. The Dharma Bums was an interesting intellectual ride that cherishes nature with an exuberance that motivates any reader to get outside and experience life, but at times that book is so relentless in its pursuit to explore spiritual truths that it often loses touch with reality. Big Sur is the most grounded of Kerouac’s three novels I’ve read. It is written with the same poetic drive with and spiritual excitement of any of Kerouac’s works, with a narrative voice that speaks in fugue, running from one idea to the next, interspersing dialogue with internal thought. However, unlike his earlier books, Big Sur explores darker territory. If On the Road is a novel about frenetic discovery of what life has to offer through constant travel and ongoing experiences and The Dharma Bums is a novel about what life has to offer through meditative peace with nature, then Big Sur is a novel about the internal, looking within oneself and recognizing the limitations of trying to find purpose by simply living through experiences.
This is the novel of a mature, but disillusioned man struggling with addiction and dependence told with brutal honesty often unexplored by a voice speaking with clarity and self-awareness. Kerouac’s relation to self, his family, and friends is always troubled by his spiritual identity, a constant mix of hope and desperation grounded in the dichotomous ideals of his Catholic upbringing and young adult transition to Buddhism. The dichotomy of overbearing guilt and the release of emptiness pervade throughout the book with a vibrancy as he is constantly struggling with the need to be with others and celebrate life through a drunken stupor while he is internally gravitating away from others with a need to escape.
Although the novel begins with him seeking a three week break from drink and city life, he finds that those three weeks were too much to bear (it was originally supposed to be a six week retreat) and he quickly finds himself back in San Francisco, drunk and with old friends. The gang all end up back in the Big Sur cabin time and again, but the original tranquility is desecrated by the transition from house of healing to house of debauchery. What’s more is that Kerouac is plagued by young devotees, readers of his books who follow him around hoping to gain enlightenment from the author of their favorite books. This pressure to be something he no longer is causes him to dive deeper into drink and the pages of Big Sur portray the ravages of alcoholism with a voice that is both honest and foreboding:
“I can hear myself whining “Why does God torture me? – But anybody who’s never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it’s not so much physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don’t drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility – The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning your sick silliness.” (96)
Big Sur reveals itself not to be a novel simply about the beautiful coastline and the peaceful escape provided by the coastline’s tranquility, but an honest expression of struggle, disappointment, and disillusion. The following passage is an expression of Kerouac’s realization that his early meditations upon the passage of time don’t stand up to his hungover, alcohol dependent frustrations and disappointments:
“The once pleasant thumpthump gurgle slap of the creek is now an endless jabbering of blind nature which doesn’t understand anything in the first place – My old thoughts about the slit of a billion years covering all this and all cities and generations eventually is just a dumb old thought, “Only a silly old sober fool could think it, imagine gloating over such nonsense” (because in one sense the drinker learns wisdom, in the words of Goethe or Blake or whichever it was “The pathway to wisdom lies through excess”) – But in this condition you can only say “Wisdom is just another way to make people sick” – I’m SICK I yell emphatically to the trees, to the woods around, to the hills above, looking around desperately, nobody cares.” (97-98)
The novel goes through several cycles of Kerouac seeking healing, finding peace in nature only to relapse in drunken fugues. The narrator Jack Duluoz (I have been calling him Kerouac in this description, but as is the case of all of Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novels, he uses pseudonyms for all of the beat writers of the time) finds himself in a relationship with a young woman, named Billie. Billie has a child from another man and she is abusive towards the child and will encourage Jack to have sex with her while the child is present in the room. The circle of friends Jack finds himself around Billie include a man who speaks of molesting young girls. The moral depravity Kerouac has found himself living within is laid bare, on the table in all its brutality. It is acknowledged that none of the beat writers, Kerouac included, give much credit to woman in any of their works (and this may be due to the sentiments of the 1950’s era), but the inclusion of these disgusting behaviors (a girlfriend who beats her son and a friend who openly speaks of molesting children) are examples of how low Jack has sunk. In an attempt to release himself from his patterns of alcoholism and his old friends, he finds himself the worse off, surrounded by people that pull him lower. These behaviors of others around him are what push Jack over the edge into an inevitable mental breakdown out of total disgust with all that is wrong with the world and himself. He is reduced to a child himself, unable to function with out others, both needing their presence and constantly disgusted by their and his own behaviors:
“I’m clutching at the drapes of the window like the Phantom of the Opera behind the masque, waiting for Billie to come home and remembering how I used to stand by the window like this in my childhood and look out on dusky streets and think how awful I was in this development everybody said was supposed to be “my life” and “their lives” – Not so much that I’m a drunkard that I feel guilty about but that others who occupy this plane of “life on earth” with me don’t feel at all.” (141)
That disgust is rooted in his realization that despite the ugliness of human behavior, life is beautiful, it continues on and doesn’t care about the depravity of man, it just continues.
In one final visit to Big Sur with Billie and another couple, Jack completely loses touch with reality in a state of total alcoholic madness and realizes that he must completely let go of all he is doing, escape back to his roots in New York and get away from the life he is living. The ending of the novel is somewhat abrupt, but it portrays a psychological break from reality and subsequent release from guilt that adeptly expresses the root of Kerouac’s belief that ultimately all the struggle of mankind is momentary in the greater history of world, for the world will continue on, unconcerned.
“The empty blue sky of space says “All this comes back to me, then goes again, and comes back again, then goes again, and I don’t care, it still belongs to me” – The blue sky adds “Dont call me eternity, call me God if you like, all of you talkers are in paradise, the man is paradise, the fog is paradise.” (30)